“Sorry for the increase, but our hands are tied,” said Vice Mayor Dan Liedtke, serving as acting mayor in the absence of Mayor Sam Henderson.
Council approved a first reading of the increases at its June 18 meeting, which featured an extensive presentation from City Finance Director Cheryl Hannafin detailing the need for rate increases and how, by and large, Gulfport has little choice in the matter thanks to the contract for services it has with the city of St. Petersburg.
Hannafin returned on Tuesday evening to help council members and City Manager Jim O’Reilly respond to public comment about the rate increases. According to Hannafin’s numbers, Gulfport residents in the 0-2,000 gallon per month usage level will see their monthly bills rise by $7.64, while users in the 2,000-4,000 gallon per month usage level will pay an additional $12.93.
Tuesday’s meeting was robustly attended by members of the public who wanted to make known their feelings about the utility rate increases.
“For me,” said Gulfport resident Denise Lowe, “it’s all about the money. It adds up to a significant increase for a lot of folks.” Lowe said senior citizens, low-income families, and other residents on fixed incomes will be hit hard by the hikes.
April Thanos, however, tried to keep the increases in perspective. “It looks like a big increase, but when you look at the numbers, it’s little.”
What Thanos questioned was the need for twice-weekly trash pickup. Picking up trash once per week, she said, “might save on staffing and we could save some money there.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Yolanda Roman agreed that reducing the frequency of trash pickup could be “worth investigating.”
O’Reilly responded by saying, “We could look at that,” but added that he’s concerned about the risk to public health posed by garbage sitting around outside for a week in hot weather.
Ward 2 Councilmember Christine Brown cast the debate in fiscal, budgetary terms. She brought up the city’s commitment to giving its workers raises, as well as the cost of maintaining and improving the infrastructure that supports public utilities. “That money has to come from somewhere,” she said.
Several members of the public questioned why 0-2,000 gallons per month constituted the city’s lowest billing tier, and some called for the creation of a 0-1,000 tier for accounts that use very little water, such as those belonging to snowbirds and other seasonal residents. In addition to saving residents money, it would also encourage them to use less water.
“I’m not opposed to us knowing that we have to pay more,” said Thanos. “That’s just the way it is. But it’s not encouraging people to conserve water.”
O’Reilly explained that unlike St. Petersburg, Gulfport does not start billing for water by the gallon starting at zero gallons; instead, everyone in the 0-2,000 gallon per month tier pays the same base rate, just like everyone in the 2,000-4,000 gallon per month tier pays the same base rate.
“We are doing it less expensively [than St. Pete],” he said.
That response didn’t satisfy the nay-sayers, however.
“I still don’t understand how we’re not paying for our water if it’s under 2,000 gallons,” said Lowe. “There must be some hidden fees in there somewhere.”
In the end, though, councilmembers had little choice in the matter. As Hannafin explained and illustrated, Gulfport’s 30-year utilities agreement with St. Petersburg is coming to an end in 2018, and the latter city intends to slap the former with a 25 percent surcharge on the wholesale rate it charges for water and sewer services. And other Pinellas County communities that receive St. Pete water and services will suffer the same fate.
“I know this is tough,” said Roman, “but I’ve studied it. St. Pete is struggling [with rate increases] as well. They had this same sort of meeting last week.”
Roman added that Gulfport’s options are limited even further by the state-level statute that authorized the 25 percent surcharge, which means Gulfport’s water and sewer costs will rise by some $1.2 million between 2016 and 2019. The existence of the statute makes it difficult, if not impossible, to mount a legal challenge to St. Pete’s decision.
Gulfport residents should expect to see the rate increases reflected in utility bills that arrive after September 30, 2017. O’Reilly said the city has notified residents via an explanatory note included in their most recent bills, so the increases shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Stetson Plan Draws Public Outcry
During open public comment at the beginning of Tuesday night’s meeting, several speakers delivered vehement opposition to Stetson University College of Law’s desire to close a portion of 61st St. S., between 13th Ave. S. and 15th Ave. S., to create a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare with foot bridges. Some residents accused city councilmembers of meeting in secret with Stetson officials to further develop the street-closure plan, which they say is tantamount to private theft of public property.
Gulfport resident Rachel McLeod called it “a public trust issue.” She accused councilmembers of “undermining the public trust” and violating Florida’s Sunshine Law by refusing to answer when asked if they’d met in private with Stetson officials.
Ed Duensing said he was troubled by the lack of communication on Stetson’s part. “What bothers me is I haven’t see a plan for the use of the property,” he told council during open public comment. “Why should public property be deeded to a private user? I’d like to have more input from Stetson as to what their intentions are.”
Roman, who on May 25 held a community forum about the plan on the Stetson campus, responded by reminding everyone that Stetson has yet to submit a formal proposal to council for review. If and when that happens, Roman said she intends to hold a second forum to gather additional details about Stetson’s intentions and provide the public with another opportunity to directly address school officials.
Attend Gulfport Night Out
During council comments and informational reports at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, Roman encouraged everyone to attend Gulfport Night Out, 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, August 3, at the Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S. Gulfport Night Out is an annual community-building event that promotes police-community partnerships with the goal of making neighborhoods safer, more caring places to live. Roman said it will be a great opportunity to enjoy some good food, get to know your neighbors, and show your appreciation for the hard work of police and fire department personnel in the community.
Ward 4 Councilmember Michael Fridovich was appointed, by consensus, to serve as Gulfport’s voting delegate at the Florida League of Cities Conference.
The next city council meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 15.